The Karakoram Highway

When I tell people that my favorite country thus far has been Pakistan, I often receive horrified stares, as if I’ve just admitted that I enjoy licking squirrels or pooping in jam jars.  But what people don’t realize is that Pakistan is more than just embassy raids and Taliban adventures—it’s home to breathtaking geological beauty, scintillating culture, and one of the greatest, most ‘undiscovered’ travel highlights of the world: a road trip along the Karakoram Highway.

The story of the Karakoram Highway starts over 80 million years ago, with a small island chain called Tethys adrift in the vast, primordial ocean. Tethys met a violent end when the tectonic plate of the Indian subcontinent detached from Gondwanaland, drifted into Tethys, and then smashed it into the subcontinent of Laurasia, tipping the island chain on its side, crushing it to shards of rubble, and then spewing the detritus skywards, creating the mighty Karakoram Range. Today it remains an active tectonic zone, elevating the north of Pakistan by five centimeters every year.

The Karakoram is the world’s densest concentration of high peaks and glaciers, and one of the world’s most visually stunning mountainscapes—abundant deposits of shale and granite form sharp, jagged structures like shards of broken glass, making the tallest of Alps look like dinky, little Fisher-Price mountains. For serious outdoor junkies, trekking the Karakoram and glimpsing K2 (the world’s second highest and most dangerous peak) is the mountaineering equivalent to getting wild felatio from Sara Underwood, in a spaceship.

Through the heart of this geological carnage runs the Karakoram Highway, tracing Marco Polo’s footsteps along the Silk Road—the ancient trade route that spanned the Orient, linking the imperial dynasties of Peking with the coffers of the Roman Empire. At the trade route’s heart lied the Karakoram, a pivotal crossroad between Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East; the artery through which spread three great faiths—Buddhism to the north, Islam to the east, and pasta to the west.

My journey up the Karakoram Highway had a much more practical reason than sightseeing; after a lengthy CIA interrogation and several whimsical near-death experiences, my merry Pakistan vacation had come to an end and I was ready to flee to China.

I met Mike Spencer Bown in Lahore, a fellow traveller on an epic twenty-one year mission to be the first person to extensively travel every country on the globe. As we were both heading in the same direction, we decided to team up for the Karakoram.

Our first stop was the former mountain kingdom of Hunza. The Karakoram is a dizzying cultural tapestry of twenty-four independent mountain kingdoms, each with their own language and culture, developed in isolation, but influenced by the Silk Road traders, the foreign invaders, the Hans, the Huns, the Afghans, the Arabs, the Mughals, the Mongols, the Kushans, the Pashtuns, and the British.

Baltit Fort holds prime real estate above Karimabad, the former capital of Hunza. Hunza was perhaps the most unpopular of the Silk Road kingdoms, due to their habit of raping and plundering all those who passed.

Technically, the Karakoram region is not territory of Pakistan, but an international No-Man’s-Land: when the British partitioned India, the governor of Kashmir (who was Hindu) was given the unenviable task of deciding whether Kashmir would be part of Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan. For two months he stalled. Would he pander to his own religious self-interest by joining India? Or would he respect his predominantly Muslim subjects by ceding to Pakistan? Or, would he find the bravery and honor to stand up with separatists and demand an independent nation of Kashmir?

He sided with India.

Wrong answer.

The people of Kashmir stormed Srinagar and India and Pakistan went to war…

…When the dust settled, Kashmir remained India’s, except for a consolatory sliver that was handed over to Pakistan, along with the Karakoram Territories and an emphatic “Maybe next time.” The terms of the ceasefire also stipulated that until a vote was cast for the people of Kashmir to decide, Kashmir wouldn’t *officially* belong to anyone. There has yet to be such a vote, and considering that India possesses enough nuclear weaponry to turn Pakistan into a glassy plain, there probably will never be a vote.

Pakistan remains patient though, maintaining that Kashmir still belongs to no one. Accordingly, the same applies to the Karakoram Areas—accepting the Karakoram as part of Pakistan would be accepting the treaty. Accepting the Karakoram would be accepting that Kashmir belongs to India. Accepting the Karakoram would be accepting defeat.

When the treaty was signed, Pakistan closed all passes to Kashmir and the Karakoram, and for the proceeding decades the Karakoram region fell into a state of isolation, cut off from the rest of Pakistan.

As if matters couldn’t get worse for the people of the Karakoram, the government of Pakistan deprives them the right to vote. Perhaps it’s karma after centuries of harassing the Silk Road. Either way, the people of the north are still really, super pissed off about it and many don’t consider themselves Pakistani. Instead, they remain subjects to the local mir of their mountain kingdoms.

Trekking is Pakistan’s top draw card and as you travel along the Karakoram Highway, you can feel the presence of the tourism industry (i.e. we saw three other white people there).

We attempted two treks; both were spectacular; both went terribly awry. This was the first of the treks, when we hiked up to a high altitude meadow, only to discover that the only guesthouse had gone out of business, leaving us stranded on the mountain with no food or shelter.

As is the theme of travel in Pakistan, the hospitality of its people never fails to surprise you. A local shepherd lent us his tent, cooked up a pot of chai, and shared his last piece of naan with us for dinner. Supplemented by a handful of dried apricots Mike had in his pocket, this was our only sustenance for twenty-four hours.

As spectacular as the geological and cultural offerings may be, one of the greatest attractions is the highway itself.

Linking Islamabad in Pakistan with Kashgar in China, the Karakoram Highway is one of the most epic building projects since the Great Wall, snaking 1,200km through the Karakoram and Pamir Mountains, and demonstrating the grand vision and disregard for life that exemplifies Chinese engineering. An average of one worker died for every kilometer of road, due to landslides, heat, winter, accidents, and working in such a nightmarishly inhospitable terrain.

We hadn’t even driven two hours north of Hunza before the road abruptly vanished into a massive lake. Evidently highway maintenance is a war of attrition, as nature constantly reclaims the road. We later learned that a landslide in 2010 dammed the river, transforming the entire valley into a massive, high altitude lake.

We were herded out of the bus and onto a boat carrying chickens, boxes, and women in veils, which ferried us for one hour to the road on the other side of the lake.

The proliferation of shale around Passu manifests itself in ethereal spires and cones, creating an almost fantasy, Tolkien-esque mountainscape. Add to this fact that bearded, robed Pashtuns are reminiscent of Gandalf, and women in black burqas kind of look like Ring Wraiths, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d somehow slipped into Middle Earth.

One of the most dangerous moments of my trip occurred on our second trek. We attempted to hike around Zard Sar (Yellow Top) Mountain, but by late afternoon, the sun was fading, we could see a storm approaching, and we’d barely made it half way around the mountain. Perhaps we’d followed the wrong path…

Enter this guy, who lived in a hut with his goats on the far side of Passu glacier. After trying to lure us into his hut for tea, he told us that Passu was two hours away—just climb straight over the mountain.

We made it about four-fifths to the top before the terrain crumbled into loose, treacherous scree. The final ascent was a breathless, white-knuckle scramble—make one false step and down the mountain you fall.

We later learned that a few years back, a tourist had fallen to his death attempting this climb.

Atop Zard Sar, we found a sprawling, windswept plateau, carpeted with tiny marine fossils and dwarfed, high altitude wildflowers.

From Passu, the road strikes north for the highest cluster of peaks, traversing the 5,000-meter Khunjerab Pass into Central Asia.

From the Khunjerab, the highway descends through the Pamir Mountains to the steppes of Xinjiang.

In the shadow of Mt. Muztagh Ata, Mike and I were invited to stay with a Kyrgyz family in their Yurt—an experience that proved fascinating, eye-opening, evocative, cold, wet, sort of awkward, and unforgettable.

While Xinjiang belongs to China, it has more culturally in common with the ‘Stans of Central Asia—a land of Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks; yurts, yoghurt, and obligatory mutton three times a day.

Waking up early, we set off for our last day on the highway. Slicing through the Pamirs, the mountains slowly diminished, degrading from black granite to red sandstone, until they vanished into the sands of the Great Taklamakan Desert. Mud mosques appeared, and signs scrawled in Uighur and Mandarin Chinese too, as the highway unfurled across the desert like a red carpet. Green shimmered on the horizon, blooming into a verdant oasis, and by mid-afternoon, the Silk Road city of Kashgar appeared before us like a mirage.

Welcome to China.

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Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more photos and videos, click the Photo Travelogue tab at the top of this page.

For more information about the Uighur people of Xinjiang, check out the Photo Travelogue, "Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo"

For an ill-fated travel tale involving the mountain tribes of Burma, check out the story “The Wrong Pancake

Continue to the next Photo Travelogue, "Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo"

The Art of Trip Planning

I’m writing this article for my younger brother, who, with all due respect, is about to make a terrible mistake.

“Steve!” he exclaimed over the phone. “I’m coming to visit you in Thailand for New Years! I’m booking my flight now. I’m gonna stay for two months.”

(That part’s not the mistake).

“Awesome!” I said. “How much money do you have saved?”

“Well… None, really,” he replied nonchalantly. He explained that his friend had loaned him just enough cash for the plane ticket, and that even though he didn’t have a consistent source of income, he was hoping he’d somehow amass several thousand dollars in the couple months before his flight date rolled around.

(That’s not the mistake either. In fact, I admire his adventurous risk-tasking). (Perhaps recklessness is a hereditary trait).

What Sean said next though was completely crazy.

“I’ve got eight weeks to see Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. What do you recommend? I’m making my itinerary now.”

Itinerary. I cringed.

Itinerary. The dark word seemed to echo over the phone.

Itinerary…

Five years ago, I charted out my first backpacking trip—a three-month dash across the Middle East; a blitzkrieg tour-de-force taking in seven countries and three continents. Like most first-time travelers, I was naïve and terrified that everything would go wrong. And, like most first-time travelers do, I attempted to quell my anxiety by over-stuffing my trip with as much structure and meticulous planning as possible. The resulting itinerary was a neurotic, twenty-six page tome, replete with inspirational pictures, strict daily timetables, and even—I admit it—dinner recommendations for all ninety-four days. I was proud of my ‘Trip Bible.’ It was as impressive as it was misguided and laughably sad.

Needless to say, the trip was a stressful and exhausting experience.

Burned from my mistakes, I attacked my next backpacking adventure with a radically opposite approach: I booked a flight to India, and then didn’t open my guidebook until I was on the plane… at which point I learned that I had perfectly timed my trip to coincide with the height of India’s monsoon season. Surprise! Arriving in Delhi at midnight, the temperature soared at 97 degrees Fahrenheit, with 94% humidity and constant torrential thunderstorms. Later, when I woke up in the middle of the night because the heat was so intense, I found that my pillow completely soaked through in my own sweat.

The first day of my trip was spent in the booking office of the Delhi Railway Station, my face pressed firmly in front of their floor-fan, weeping inconsolably.

In the years that followed, I’ve learned that effective trip planning is a delicate art form—one of balance and moderation. It is also deeply personal, and preferences of pace and rhythm are sure to change from one individual to the next. In this week’s blurb of Backpackology, I want to stop any first-time backpackers from sufferings the same rookie mistakes that I did. I’m going to offer a stress-free, fool-proof, simple, and easy formula for plotting out your next backpacking adventure.

The first step to mapping your next trip—even if you forego drafting an itinerary—is to research, research, research your destination. Remember to think in terms of macro instead of micro; instead of looking up famous beaches and top museums, focus on the broader picture. Read up on visa requirements, suggested vaccinations, safety advisories, travel costs, cultural etiquette, language, weather forecasts, what to pack, and other special travel considerations. The trick to effectively researching your destination is to really actually go and research it instead of scanning the WikiTravel page, you lazy asshole. Fun Fact: That newfangled Google internet website isn’t just for finding porn. The internet is rife with information, and it’s never been easier to find practical, relevant advice on the most far-flung destinations. Without proper research, even the most polished itinerary can crumble to pieces:

Thought it would be fun to take a Foodie Tour of Morocco this July? Surprise! It’s Ramadan, have fun fasting.

Thought you’d escape the winter holidays for a peaceful meditation retreat in Thailand? Surprise! You can’t hear yourself think during the height of the tourist season and a drunk chick just puked up a condom on your yoga mat.

Thought you’d sail up the Nile and check out the fabled and forgotten pyramids of Sudan? Surprise! You just died.

Once you’ve researched your destination, it’s time to consider which places to visit. My general rule of thumb is that, if the duration of your trip is two weeks or shorter and there are five or more sights/places that you’re absolutely dying to see, then (and only then) is an itinerary necessary. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that the only benefit of an itinerary is, supposedly, peace of mind; you know you’ll get to see all the sites, you know your time will be carefully managed; you always know exactly what to anticipate. Unfortunately, this peace of mind is a false promise, and instead, following a rigid timetable burdens you with stress, hassle, and the set-up for disappointment.

Far worse, a full itinerary changes the nature of your trip at an elemental level—it robs you of spontaneity, and accordingly, countless potential experiences. By reducing your trip to a checklist of attractions, you lose the ability to seize life’s surprise opportunities. You never know when a friendly cab driver will invite you to a cousin’s wedding, or when you’ll be asked to play a part in a Bollywood movie. You never know when you might fall ill. You never know when you might fall in love. The best approach to travel planning is one of minimalism and elasticity. You needn’t try to visit every single attraction—travel is about so much more than sightseeing.

My planning strategy is to schedule only one activity per week, and then play the rest by ear: Tomorrow, I’m planning to explore Beijing’s Forbidden City Palace in the morning. After that, I think I might take a break from China, simply because it’s too hot and sweaty and I don’t like it when my balls stick to the side of my leg.

Maybe in the afternoon, I’ll catch the train south to Tibet. Or perhaps I’ll board the ferry east to Korea. At this exact moment, I think I might hitch a ride north to Mongolia, though perhaps I’ll be too hot to move and sit in the hostel all day getting drunk instead.

The only thing I’m certain of is that tomorrow I’m going to pack my bag and go somewhere. I’m not sure where yet; there’s no ‘peace of mind,’ I don’t know what to anticipate—but I love that. I love the excitement. I love the suspense. I love the rush of flipping through guidebook photos, then spreading out my map, taking a step back, and asking, “Where do I want to go today?

It’s simply one of the greatest feelings in the world.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more backpacking tips and tricks, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of the page.

For more travel philosophy, read The Backpacker’s Manifesto.

The bit about getting picked to play a part in a Bollywood movie was a true example! Check it out in the story Steve McDonald: Bollywood Extra(ordinaire).

Wednesday Wanderings: The Former Nation of East Turkestan

It’s hard to stabilize a video camera when you’re being stampeded by a crowd of bedraggled Uighur shepherds, when you’re tripping over barnyard critters and women with gold-plated teeth and painted unibrows are screaming foreign obscenities in your ears.

So, for any readers who are easily susceptible to motion sickness: I guess I’m sorry for what’s coming. Go scarf down a bottle of Dramamine or something, because this Wednesday Wandering is taking us to a livestock market in the former nation of East Turkestan.

East Turkestan?

Unless you’ve read an early edition of ‘Arabian Nights,’ it’s probably not ringing a bell. That’s because in 1949, Mao’s Red Army marched into this marginalized (irrelevant) corner of Central Asia and declared it property of China (historically something of a habit for the Chinese).

Today, this unstable region remains part of China, known as Xinjiang Autonomous Zone. What’s interesting about China’s ownership claim is its shameless transparency: the people of Xinjiang aren’t ethnically Chinese, but Turkic Uighur; they aren’t Buddhist, but fervently Muslim; they don’t speak Mandarin, but Uighur, a language related to Turkish, but written with Arabic script. When separatists point to these differences, the Chinese government laughs and pats their heads. ‘China depends on ethnic diversity,’ they say—almost as much as they depend on Xinjiang’s vast mineral and oil deposits, which have an estimated dollar value in the billions. But we don’t like to talk about that.

To call China’s Uighur population angry and resentful would be using understatement to its greatest effect. In recent years, the Uighurs have cried for independence and autonomy, demonstrating their firm ability to self-rule by exploding their own public areas and immolating local buses. It hasn’t been working out that well so far, but they’re really optimistic.

This video is a snapshot of this ethnic minority group, taken at Kashgar’s Sunday Livestock Market, where Uighur shepherds gather from the surrounding villages to haggle over sheep, goats, cattle, and camels.

As you’re watching, keep an eye out for the women with gold teeth and stenciled unibrows. In many Central Asian cultures, the sight of a woman smiling at you from across the bazaar with 40 karat grills and a hairy, unbroken brow-line is considered profoundly erotic, irresistible to all men. Some things are best left unexplained.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPoWR6u1viY]

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To learn more about East Turkestan (while looking at pretty pictures), check out the Photo Travelogue "Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, & The Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo"

Or follow the old ‘Tea Horse Trail’ into China’s exotic south, in the Photo Travelogue "Going South on China: A Panda Hunt"

Guilty as Charged

If Purgatory exists, I imagine it looks something like the Concord District Courthouse’s waiting room: a torturous realm of eternal, soul-sucking silence; overly air-conditioned, reeking of floor cleaner, lined with wooden benches crammed with faces of desperation and dread. The few empty areas are filled with cheery motel-paintings and attractive potted plants—a feeble effort to distract you from ripping out all your hair and then screaming at the mirror.

I nervously fidgeted with my paperwork; I had a lot at stake. If I were convicted, I would need to pay fines equivalent to two months worth of budget. This meant that I would either have to remove two countries from my route or skip eating lunch for six months. For a brief, humiliating moment, I humored the idea of trying live webcam modeling from the road, but quickly overruled it; Asia’s connection speeds are too slow, plus whenever I try to do ‘sexy face,’ it looks like I’ve suddenly gone blind.

I hired the sneakiest, con-artist lawyer I could afford. His name was David and he a short, older man with a sad comb-over and a conniving, phony smile. “What are we charged with?” he queried when I first visited his office (his basement).

“It’s a funny story,” I chuckled. “But basically I was pulled over driving an unregistered vehicle that wasn’t insured. Also, the front license plate was missing. And the back license plate belonged to a different car,” I said. I went on to explain how my car had broken down and how I’d just traded it in for a new car, but hadn’t finished the paperwork yet and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. It was a fairly indefensible position; they caught me with my pants down and were ready to administer their great, black dildo of justice.

David thought quietly for a moment and then leaned forward, very serious. He squinted his beady eyes and nasally declared, “You’re the victim here.”

I blinked. “Is that so?”

David nodded.

I found his amusing confidence comforting; at least until ‘Steve McDonald!’ was called in the courthouse waiting room, and I suddenly realized that the judge might just laugh at that defense. I gathered my things and followed David to the door.

I’ll have to skip Bali and Brunei, I decided. And I’ll have to start practicing my sexy face.

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When I first learned that I would need to fly back to America for a court case, I was surprisingly happy. I suspect this was some form of homesickness trying to manifest itself, despite the fact that I was quite homeless. As my trip unfolded, I increasingly found my thoughts drifting back to last year on Cape Cod; nostalgic memories of my house, of my family, of my friends, of starlit bonfires and micro beer on the beach, of mind-bending, black-lit, neon body-painted dance parties, of the crippling hangovers that invariably ensued, of ritual Sunday night hookah sessions with Fiona, Matt, Cassie, and Joe.

I think that time was the pinnacle of my booze-fueled early adulthood; my golden age of hedonistic idiocy. For my friends and I, it was that transitional period between college and career; that beautiful period of life when stress and responsibility are supplanted by impermanence and immediacy, when you get to drink tequila out a squirt gun, eat a bag of mushrooms in a bathroom stall, and then wake up to find that you’ve had Tweety Bird ironically tattooed on your lower back. You can say stupid things you don’t mean and make stupid mistakes you won’t remember or regret. Nothing means anything, because everything is just for now. In February, you’ll start your career. In February, you’ll move to Dallas. In February, you’ll finally buy your one-way ticket to Asia.

But now I was crawling back in June, hoping the party hadn’t ended.

I booked a round-trip ticket from Beijing to New York, a two-month vacation home.

I often used to wake up in the middle of the night, look around my hotel room, and for a brief, disorienting moment, not know where I was.

Then one night, I woke up to find that I was in my own bedroom. Very abruptly, I was home, and Asia seemed a very distant, intangible notion. My old boss was kind enough to give me my old job back at the pub, and within a week, I happily fell back into my old routine.

I happily reunited with family and friends, I drank tequila out of a squirt gun, and I sprawled out with friends on a blanket on the beach, drunkenly pointing up at constellations that don’t exist and listening to the crackle of the bonfire. I danced all night under black lights and did my best to deny the fact that any time had past, which, at times, felt achingly obvious; many of my friends had moved on to bigger and better things elsewhere; the black light paint felt itchier than I remembered; the micro beer tasted less pretentious; the beach seemed windier, the hangovers more punishing. In fact, nothing I was doing lived up to my rose-tinted memories, and I found it very frustrating. Overshadowing all of this was the worry of my impending court case and premonitions of legal doom. I quickly grew disenchanted, and started to long for the road again.

Then suddenly, as abruptly as I had come home, I was boarding my flight back to Beijing to resume my travels—but as a result of the court case, I had a new, altered route.

On my first day back in China, I hired a driver to take me to an abandoned section of the Great Wall called Jiankou, a crumbling stretch that winds along a steep mountain ridge, plunging up and down at death-defying angles. While the ‘tourist’ portions of China’s Great Wall have been restored to the point that they are no longer historical, Jiankou’s position is so inaccessible and treacherous that it has managed to retain its historical integrity, and much of it has been dramatically reclaimed by the forest. It is often regarded as the most beautiful, but dangerous stretch of the Great Wall.

I packed enough food and water for two days, as well as a tent, which I pitched in an abandoned watchtower called Jiuyan Lou, or ‘Nine Eye Watchtower’—the former general’s living quarters. By sundown, I was sitting on the parapet, snacking on peanut butter with my fingers, humming along to a playlist that a friend had made for me before I left home, and watching the sun dip below the karst mountaintops, bathing the silent, ghostly ruins in shafts of orange light.

It was at this moment that I thought I felt my cellphone vibrate and instinctively reached for my pocket—only to remember that I didn’t have a cellphone anymore and that nobody would be calling me again for at least another year and a half. My new drinking buddies were Transience and Solitude. I was alone; I was alone on a mountaintop, eating peanut butter with my hands, sadly bobbing my head to club music, and nobody would call me again for another year and half.

I suddenly missed home. I suddenly missed having a normal life. I suddenly missed a million little things that until that moment had seemed insignificant.

I missed my cellphone ringing. I missed people knowing my name. I missed the thoughtless comfort of routine. I missed having more than two pairs of clothes. I missed having a temporary ceasefire with my bowels. I missed waking up in the middle of the night and knowing exactly where I was.

I had been so caught up and frustrated trying to reenact old memories that my whole summer had slipped away and I never took a moment to appreciate it for what it was. It’s not last year anymore; everyone is getting older; every party has its end; you can’t fetishize nostalgia or try to relive the past—the best you can do is to try to enjoy this moment now. This might sound like cliché, idiotic, and useless advice, and that’s because it is. Such tendencies are out of your control.

Last year, you were pining for the year before last. Next year, you’ll be pining for today.

Tomorrow, I’ll be pining for this spectacular view, a snapshot frozen in my memory of the Great Wall undulating into the distant starry night. Except the wall will be taller, the slopes will be more precipitous, and the stars will be burning a thousand times brighter.

My focus is solely on the future now, building anticipation for my new adventures, as well as my newly altered travel route.

Much to my shock, my wonderful crook of a lawyer somehow convinced the judge that I was faultless (a preposterous lie) (she seemed to find his wormy antics amusing) and all of my charges were dismissed without incurring a single court fee. With the money I had set aside to pay the fines (plus the extra money I’d raised at the pub), I was able to adjust my route and add two new countries to the journey…

I hear South Korea is nice in November.

I hear Outer Mongolia is terribly cold in October, but that happens to be the time when the Kazakh nomads’ hold their Eagle Hunting Festival—and I couldn’t possibly miss that.

So upon further reflection, fuck my cellphone.

Next stop: Ulaan Baatar.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For photographic eye-candy of the Kazakh nomads’ Eagle Hunting Festival, and to see how Backpackology got banned in Kazakhstan, check out the Photo Travelogue, “A Steppe Too Far?: Eagle Hunters, Cultural Darwinism, & Getting Banned in Kazakhstan”

Or read about the epic, disastrous journey to reach there, hitchhiking across the Gobi Desert in "The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia"

Detained in Bahawalpur

Nearly two months have passed since my ill-fated journey to Bahawalpur, since my sixteen-hour CIA interrogation in a dirty, Pakistani hotel room, since they threatened to shut down my website if I publicized the story. I’m hoping that their threat has expired, or that it was all just a bluff—because what I’m about to do might be the blogging equivalent of punching a beehive.

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I knew the police were following me.

I nervously surveyed the crumbling, blue-tiled edifice of Bibi Jawindi’s tomb—a 15th century ruin of a Sufi mausoleum, evocatively ripped in half by earthquakes in 1812. As I stood amidst the turquoise bricks and detritus of the collapsed dome, everything seemed eerily quiet and still; still, save for the dust that swirled in golden shafts of desert sun, and the few village children who played amongst the graves.

I knew the police were following me.

There were two of them. I could see them watching me from the fringes of a date grove, no more than twenty yards away, whispering loudly, as stealthy as elephants.

What amazed me is that they hadn’t started following me sooner.

It was my second day in the deserts of southern Pakistan, and my quest for ancient Sufi shrines had led me to the village of Bahawalpur, an ancient outpost town on the arid fringes of Cholistan. It is home to a dazzling collection of ruined temples and shrines, all delightfully dilapidated and untouched by tourism…

…Untouched by tourism because Bahawalpur lies in a Restricted Militarized Zone off limits to all foreigners (rumors abound of a Punjabi Taliban).

I was there anyways though, and so far, it seemed my clandestine tomb raiding had gone unchecked. Perhaps it was my awesome Pashtun disguise. More likely, it was just luck.

And that luck was about to run out.

I was nearly asleep when I heard the knock at my grimy hotel room door.

“I need your Pakistan I.D. card,” cried a voice in Urdu.

I quickly threw on my salwar and opened the door.

“Check-in, please. You didn’t give me your Pakistan I.D. card,” said the young receptionist, who apparently thought I was Pakistani.

My stomach turned.  If I told him I was a foreigner, I would be kicked out of the hotel—just as I’d been kicked out of a dozen other hotels over the past two days. Each one warmly welcomed me and showed me to my room, allowed me to settle down, before politely asking for my Pakistan I.D. card. Each time I revealed my passport instead, their faces would twist in betrayal and—

“You are foreigner!!” they would cry.  “No foreigners here! Go, go! No foreigners!!”

Last night, I slept at a rickshaw driver’s friend’s house.

“Please give me your I.D., sir,” snapped the receptionist, holding out his hand.

Thinking fast (and unfairly assuming the man was illiterate), I handed over a Massachusetts Driver’s License. He looked at it hard for a minute, before I gave him a reassuring nod and he disappeared down the hall with my license.

BANG! BANG! BANG! My door pounded an hour later, and as I undid the lock, two Punjabi men wearing jeans and t-shirts rudely barged into my room. The darker man did all the talking,

“What are you doing here?” he roared in English. “Where is your N.O.C. Letter of Clearance?”

“I don’t have one. What are you talking about?” I feigned.

“Why did you come here?”

“To see the temples of Multan and Uch Shariff.”

“Without a permit?” he shook his head. “That is very dangerous and off limits to foreigners. You cannot go to those places, it is impossible.”

“But that can’t be true,” I mused. “I saw Multan yesterday and Uch Shariff this afternoon.”

The man grimaced. “I am only here because I care for your safety. It is extremely dangerous in Bahawalpur. Have you talked to anyone?”

“Of course I have.”

“It’s not safe to stay here. You need to leave Bahawalpur now.”

“No way,” I protested.

“Pack your things and go.”

Mistaking the two men as hotel employees, I reacted with indignation.

“Fuck you,” I said.

The man flinched.

“I already paid a hundred and fifty rupees for this room,” I continued. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“That’s just two American dollars.”

“So what,” I shot. “It’s like midnight, there’s no buses running anyways. I’m not gonna wander around the streets with a backpack on in the dark. Especially after you just said it was extremely dangerous.”

The man pursed his lips. “Fine,” he huffed. “But you must leave on the first bus in the morning, at six o’clock.”

“Okay,” I said.

The two men receded to the door, before the darker one turned back to face me. “Two more people will visit you tonight,“ he said. “The police, and then some people who work with us.”

“Wait,” I cocked my head. “You’re not with the hotel?”

He shook his head.

I stared for a moment. “Then who are you?”

The man hesitated for a moment, then muttered “We’re Pakistan Military,” and quickly closed the door.

I moved to the window and watched the two men stride out of the hotel, hop on a motorbike, and putter off into the darkness.

It was only half an hour before the door rattled against its frame again, drumming with frantically pounding fists.

I opened the door in my boxers, and what must have been half of the Bahawalpur Divisional Police force stampeded into the room, machine guns in hand.

The Chief stomped forward, a tall, angry beard with hands and legs, pointing an accusing finger in my face.

“You Americans think you can do whatever you want,” he spat. “You are very crazy, stupid man.”

“Sorry?” I sputtered.

“You don’t have a ‘No Objections Certificate!’ Don’t you know that Bahawalpur is a very dangerous place?”

“No.”

“Who are you with?“

“No one.”

“Why?”

I shrugged.

“What if you are kidnapped?”

“I don’t know.”

“What if you get killed?”

“Well then I guess I’d be dead.”

Furious eyes shone through the curly, grey beard, glinting with rage.

I raised my hands. “I’m sorry. I’m leaving on the first bus in the morning.”

The Chief shook his head. “Oh? Really? Who says? No you’re not.”

I raised an eyebrow, and then slowly sat on the bed.

“You’re not leaving this hotel room until you can show me an official N.O.C. Letter of Clearance from the Ministry of Interiors in Islamabad.”

My jaw dropped.

“I’m leaving an armed officer here to watch you until then. Give me your license and passport,” he snarled.

I fumbled for words, but nothing came. I’d been to the Ministry of Interiors before and witnessed their unthinkable inefficiency first hand. Getting an N.O.C. could easily take weeks—weeks confined to this dismal, claustrophobic, cockroach-nest of a hotel room (the ‘shower’ of which was literally a sharp, broken pipe protruding from the wall).

The Chief held out his hand and I shakily surrendered my passport.

“But—“ I gasped, “How am I supposed to get an N.O.C. from Islamabad if I can’t even leave my hotel room?”

“That’s not my problem,” the Chief said flatly. He produced a notebook, jotted something, and tore the page. “Here’s my fax number. Send the letter to me here.”

“But I don’t know who to call!” I shouted. “I don’t even have a phone!”

“I’ll send a messenger boy to help you in the morning,” he said coldly, and turned to march out the door.


No messenger boy came the next morning.

Around ten o’clock, I poked my head out into the hallway to find a young man (about my age) standing watch with an assault rifle.

“Psss! Hey,” I whispered. “I’m hungry.”

“What do you want?” he growled.

“Fried chicken,” I whispered.

He turned in bemusement. “Where?”

“At the convenient store, across the street.”

The man considered, shifting his weight.

“If you come with me, I’ll buy you some,” I baited.

He stared at the ground for a long moment. “Okay.”

Ten minutes later, I sat on a curb, happily wolfing down drumsticks with my armed captor, an avid soccer fan whose name was Hazar. When we finished, Hazar quickly shooed me back to the hotel—where I stared at nothing for three hours before there came a knock at the door.

“You said you would leave on the first bus!” cried a familiar voice.

I opened the door and the men wearing t-shirts and jeans barged in again. There were three this time, and they looked very, very angry.

“You took my passport and license and said I couldn’t leave without getting an N.O.C. letter from Islamabad!”

The men stopped, and their eyes widened in shock. Suddenly the darkest one whipped around and they began bickering amongst themselves in Panjabi.

Obviously they had no contact with the police.

“You’re not Pakistan Military, are you?”

The men glared at me, and a long, black silence followed. The darker man shook his head, no.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Don’t ask questions,” smiled the darker man.

“Who are you,” I stammered.

The men looked around for a minute, before the quiet one in back barked in flawless English, “We’re C.I.A.” At which point, I practically fell over laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” yelled the darker man.

“Because this is so fucking ridiculous,” I howled.

They watched as I shook in hysterics, seemingly unsure what to do, before he insisted, “This is not so ridiculous!”, and I tried to collect myself.


Over the next two hours, the three men interrogated me—asking repetitive questions about who I was and what I was doing in Bahawalpur, while one of them intermittently snapped photos of me with his cellphone.

At one point, I casually reached for my camera, before they all lunged at me, shouting, “Don’t!! If you take a photo of us, we will need to take your camera away.”

When the men finished their questions, they thanked me, shook my hand, and shuffled to the door. “We’ll have you out of here soon, but maybe after some time,” the darker one reassured. “And to be clear, you don’t plan to write a story about this on your website, do you?”

“To be honest,” I confessed, “I’m extremely, extremely tempted to.”

The tall man crossed his arms. “You know that if you write about us, we’d be forced to shut down your site.”

“What?”

“Of course,” he shrugged. “And then you wont be able to log onto your website with that computer, or any computer.”

I sat stunned for a minute, before the men nodded and stepped out the door.

“Be patient. We’ll have you out soon.”

After four or so hours, despondently staring at the wall lost its novelty. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was Cabin Fever. I began walking quick, sad laps around the room in my boxers, while my sanity imploded before my eyes. At one point, I decided to explore under the bed, where I discovered a fossilized, half-eaten plate of sabzi and naan, as well as a green, plastic sandal, which I used to implement cockroach genocide in the bathroom.

When there finally came a knock at my door, I had collapsed on my bed and was hungrily contemplating the atrophied naan I had found.

The three CIA agents quietly ambled into the room.

I sat on the bed as the darker one outstretched his fist, smiled cockily for a moment, and then dropped my passport and driver’s license onto the table.

I jumped to my feet. “How did you get it!?”

“We talked to people,” smirked the quiet one.

“Yesss!!” I pumped my fists. AMURICAA!!

“Pack your bags now, you must leave immediately,” the darker man ordered, and I instantly scrambled to collect my things.

I was just tightening the last straps on my pack when Hazar strode in with an older lieutenant in a white salwar. After plying me with a few final questions, the two of them escorted me from the hotel, put me into the back of a police cruiser, and drove me directly to the bus station.

At the terminal, Hazar kindly offered to carry my bag, and the old lieutenant smiled and waved to me as I bought my bus ticket at Hazar’s gunpoint. Then Hazar and his AK sat next to me in the waiting room, and when my bus finally arrived, he wished me a good trip and abruptly gave me a hug. The lieutenant hugged me too.

A minute later, the bus lurched forward and the dingy village of Bahawalpur slowly receded behind us. Soon rivers appeared, and I watched out the window as the desert sands transformed to verdant crops of melon, corn, and wheat. After sixteen-hours of police detention, I was free at last, riding northward, kicking up dust on the long and winding road to Lahore.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For another incarceration adventure, watch me attempt to sneak into the CIA’s “Secret City” of Long Chen in, “Detained in Laos: Lost Tribes of the CIA’s Secret War”

For more travel stories from Pakistan, India, and Burma, click the ‘Travel Stories' link at the top of this page.

For more photos and videos, check out the Photo Travelogues page.

To learn tips and tricks to traveling the world on a shoestring, click the ‘Backpackology 101' at the top of this page.

Everything You Never Knew You Didn’t Want to Know About Traveler’s Diarrhea

After three months of dread-filled anticipation, it was in Kannur, India, at the ironically named “Hotel Happiness,” that I finally got what was coming to me. The first wave of nausea ripped me awake at about 2:45AM, and within a matter of seconds, I found myself hunkered over a concrete squat toilet, boxers around my ankles, spraying a fine cologne of black, stinging excrement out my backside. I then turned around, fell to my knees (my face only inches above the shit-stained toilet hole), and unleashed a greenish mélange of half-digested samosas and pungent stomach acid, sending a half dozen cockroaches scuttling away in fear. When the torrent eventually puttered to a stop, I wiped my face, crawled back to bed, and whimpered myself to sleep in the fetal position. It would only be two hours before another wave of nausea would catapult me back into that fart-locker of a bathroom and demand I repeat the whole process again at 5AM.

And then again at 6AM.

And then again at 8AM.

And then every two hours or so for the rest of the day.

The whole experience was as traumatic as it was expected, and the only real surprise was that it hadn’t happened sooner. As an international traveler, you run a 30-50% chance of experiencing Traveler’s Diarrhea, with an estimated ten million travelers waging battle against exotic toilet demons annually. If you happen to be a backpacker, traveling on a budget, for any period longer than a month, your chances of getting sick hover somewhere around 100%.

With such a high rate of occurrence, it’s shocking how much misconception and misunderstanding swirls around the topic of Traveler’s Diarrhea (a.k.a. TD, Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, the Thai Two-Step, Mummy Tummy, the Gringo Gallop, Enterotoxigenic escherichia coli). Despite what you may have been told, you’ll never get the trots from exposing your fragile, white-boy tummy to foreign or spicy foods. Instead, TD is caused by microbial pathogens, with roughly 80% of all cases caused by a strand of bacteria known as enterotoxigenic escherichia coli, which can only be transmitted by the ingestion of human feces. And despite the horror stories you heard through the grape vine, TD is very rarely fatal, and enjoying mysterious street food shouldn’t be considered culinary Russian-roulette.

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that if you’re backpacking, you will inevitably suffer some gastrointestinal nightmare along the way. And when it happens, it will be in the most inconvenient place, at the most inconvenient (and retrospectively humorous) time. As a standard precaution, I always keep an Imodium tablet accessible in either my Money Belt or pocket. Many a good pair of underwear suffered a grisly demise for this lesson to be learned, so let their deaths not be in vain.

Always expect that you will get sick. Some backpackers think that by avoiding raw produce, undercooked meats, and street food, they diminish their chances of tummy malfunction. I find this cautious notion to be as misguided as it is sad. You might say this notion is ‘diarrhetarded.’ To sacrifice the opportunity to experience new, exotic foods would be to sacrifice one of the reasons we travel in the first place. Some of my most divine travel memories relate directly to street food. I’ll never forget my first falafel in Jerusalem, or haggling for a roasted sheep’s head in Marrakech. As long as the food is hot and there’s a crowd of locals, you shouldn’t think twice about digging in.

If you haven’t guessed, street food accounts for much of my diet on the road, and there have only been three or four times that this love affair has blown up in my face (and in the toilet, and once on the wall by accident). This low incident rate is not because I possess a stomach of steel. Instead, some researchers are finding that avoiding ‘dangerous foods’ has little impact on your likelihood of getting TD, and that there are broader transmission routes of bacterial pathogens in the environment—mainly hand-to-mouth contact. So perhaps it wasn’t that fried dumpling that made you weep acid tears out the backside, but instead the dirty, bacteria-laden hand you picked it up with, which you haven’t washed in over three days, you hippy. It doesn’t take a scientist to outline the importance of good hygiene and a liberal supply of hand sanitizer.

Accept the fact that you will get sick. In most cases, it will be mild, and you can continue your gallivanting with only the occasional sad trip to the bathroom. It’s only those more uncommon, severe cases, involving fever, nausea, vomiting, and malaise, that your plans will grind to a halt, and you’ll face a bed-sentence of one or two days (possibly more). In these situations, a little bit of savvy and preparation can have you back on your feet in no time:

To prepare for your long, solitary vigil on the toilet, you’ll need to stock up on lots of clean water and food; bananas, rice, and toast are ideal; dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, fried foods, and fatty meats are not. The key to a speedy recovery is to drink lots of clear fluids and replenish your electrolytes. Oral rehydration salts are highly recommended—good luck finding them though. If they’re unavailable, which they often seem to be in the third world, an acceptable alternative is Coca-Cola (not Pepsi, not Diet Coke), which contains an anti-anemic ingredient that calms your GI tract. Before drinking, shake the bottle several times to remove any remaining carbonation, which will make you puke faster than Lindsey Lohan at a stag party. The main disadvantage of drinking Coke is that it’s high in sugar (which aggravates the stomach), so limit yourself to only one or two sips an hour.

If your chocolate monsoon proves too much to handle, and you’re punishing the toilet more than four times in an eight hour span, considering calling in the cavalry: Ciprofloxicin. It’s Jesus in a pill; a gastrological atom bomb that slaughters nearly every living microbe unfortunate enough to reside in your intestines. Within a couple hours, you’ll feel significantly better. By the end of the day, you might just be back on the streets. If Cipro doesn’t yield results, if you encounter blood or mucus in your stools, high fever, or abdominal pain, and your symptoms persist for more than 72 hours: that’s bad. You might be dealing with a rare virus or protozoa, such as dysentery, cholera, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis, and you should seek medical attention immediately. If you fail to get treatment, diseases like cholera can turn life-threatening, and you risk dying alone in a hotel room, surrounded by bananas and Coke cans, sitting in a puddle of your own anal discharge.

*******

At about 6PM, nearly fifteen hours after my first attack, I ran to the bathroom, gloomily mounted the toilet, and shook my fists to the heavens for the last time. The 250mg of Cipro coursing through my veins were starting to take control, and the next morning I would awake feeling refreshed and restored, while perhaps a little more cautious.

After checking out of my godforsaken hotel, I donned my pack and started walking in the vague direction of the train station. I needed to get out of Kannur.

After twenty minutes of walking, a burst of aromatic smoke arrested my progress, and I found myself standing transfixed before a grungy, roadside dhabba, where an old man sat frying onion bhajia in a cast-iron wok. Sure the man looked a bit crusty, and the swarms of flies were eating the snacks faster than the locals, but oh dear god, that heavenly smell… I reached for my wallet, but stopped myself. Was this chance of foodie bliss worthrisking another 24 hours of gastrointestinal torture? Was I mentally prepared for my rear end to once again explode into a terrifying rectal squirt gun?

Without a doubt in my mind, yes. I tossed the man a few rupees and claimed my greasy prize. If there were any repercussions in store, I simply didn’t care. For five glorious minutes, I sat on the curb happily eating bhajia out of a crumpled scrap of newspaper,watching the grimy whirl of Indian street life pass me by, and savoring every fecal-laden bite.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more tips and tricks to living like a filthy vagabond, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of this page.

To hear my all-time most epic culinary backfire (at a tribal market in Burma), check out the travel story The Wrong Pancake.

For an in-depth foodie exposé on the cuisine of India, check out Inhaling India: A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget

Flirting with Afghanistan: The Smugglers’ Bazaar

It was a dangerous idea to try to go to Peshawar, but its Siren’s call promised romance, intrigue, and adventure: a legendary Silk Road city of traders, warriors, and poets, a place where a hairy Pashtun might offer you four camels and a carpet for your sister, and then cut off your nose for giving him a funny look.

Atmospheric appeal aside, my quest to Peshawar had a much more concrete purpose—just beyond the city limits, where the rule of government disintegrates into the lawless tribal agencies of Afghania, lies the notorious Smugglers’ Bazaar.

The bazaar was established by smugglers avoiding duty fees by exporting their goods to Afghanistan, stealing them back across the border, and selling them in the lawless tribal agencies. Shoppers are offered a wide array of electronics, clothing, and appliances, as well as machine guns, rocket launchers, and shopping bags full of heroin. Perhaps the most intriguing contraband for sale are the goods stolen from NATO forces in Afghanistan—heartfelt letters and care packages from home, space-age instant military meals, and pilfered Army equipment.

In 2007, Pakistani police trespassed into Khyber Agency to launch a crackdown on the bazaar, and a portion of it was demolished. It was quickly rebuilt however, and the official who ordered the raid was murdered two weeks later.

“You should go,” cheered Amin, lifting his teacup. “I think it is very nice, interesting place for tourists.”

Amin was an exuberant, balding tailor I met in Islamabad, who invited me for tea and insisted I visit his home city of Peshawar.

“I thought foreigners weren’t allowed into the Smugglers’ Bazaar,” I queried. “We get stopped at the checkpoint before entering Khyber Agency. “

Amin grinned. “But you wear beard and salwar and pakol hat, like Pashtun! If you say nothing, you can walk through the checkpoint and the police won’t bother you.”

“And what if the Afghanis find out I’m American and decide to kidnap me?”

“No, Afghania people is Pashtun!” scoffed Amin. “Pashtun people is very, very good people in all of Pakistan.”

I knew Pashtun hospitality wasn’t a myth, but I wondered if I’d receive a warmer welcome from the drug-runners, the arm-dealers, or the bargain hunting terrorists. Perhaps I’d receive the same ‘warm welcome’ as the Chinese tourist who visited a month ago—someone shot her in the face while she was taking pictures in the bazaar.

Troubled with conflicting safety reports, I made the responsible decision to go and assess the situation myself. After a month of unruly neck beard growth, it was time to put my Pashtun disguise to the test.

The old, Afghani proprietor of Shan Hotel peered up from behind his desk with a look of surprise. He quickly informed me why—he had only seen three foreigners in the last three months, and in the week preceding my arrival, Peshawar had suffered bomb attacks on a daily basis.

“So is it safe for me to walk around the bazaar?” I sputtered.

“Is it safe?…” he pondered. “I think it is safe if you stay in hotel room.”

And so I spent the day in my stinky, threadbare hotel room, writing by the windowsill and staring out at the crumbling old city of Peshawar. It was a dull, monochrome place, the only color belonging to the tiny, painted vans with people piled on the roofs and hanging off the sides like nightmarish, third world clown cars. Veiled women in burkas shuffled through the concrete decay, past bullet holes and soldiers with assault rifles. Even from the safety of my hotel room I could feel an inescapable tension in the air, roiling in the haze with the exhaust fumes, kebab smoke, and cry of the muezzin. Cartographically I was still in Pakistan. But for what it was worth I might as well have been in Kabul.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLHSEwdKgKo]

Night fell. After foraging the last stale cookies from the bowels of my backpack, I mustered enough courage for a kamikaze dash to the nearest kebab stall, where I inhaled a pound of mutton in three enormous, terrified bites before scurrying back to the hotel.

Around midnight, I heard a knock at my door.

“Come down to reception,” ordered a voice.

“Why?” I shouted back, but there was no response.

The power was out and so I blindly fumbled out of my room, down the hall, and down the stairs. In the dim candlelight of the lobby, eight armed police officers gazed up at me. Their imposing chief stepped forward with one eyebrow raised nearly to his hairline.

“So it is true,” he barked. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I’m on vacation,” I said.

The officers shifted their weight.

“Come over here,” snapped the chief. “Look out this window.”

I timidly peered out to where the chief was pointing.

“You see this corner across the street? Just down there, where the rickshaw is passing?”

I nodded.

“There was a bomb blast there. Seventy-two people were killed,” he sighed. “I don’t want to scare you,” he said. “I don’t want to make you nervous or uncomfortable—but Peshawar is a very, very, very dangerous place. Where are you from?” he shouted.

“America.”

"Ha Ha Ha," the chief laughed, “A very, very, very dangerous place for you, Ha Ha Ha!”

Over the next hour, the police sat me down on the sofa and did their best to scare the piss out of me.

One of the officers handed me a newspaper, emblazoned with the mug shots of two white men and the Urdu headline, ‘Police Capture Two American CIA Spies, Seize Illegal Weapons Stash.’

I stared at paper as the Chief explained how the bust had reignited anti-American sentiments and that by his predictions backlash was to be expected. If I happened to be tromping around the bazaar and flaunting my camera at the wrong time, that backlash might involve me.

“You will leave tomorrow,” he decided.

“I will,” I nodded. “But I was wondering… If I dress in Pashtun clothes and go very, very quickly in the early morning to the Smugglers’ Bazaar, would that be safe?”

The Police Chief thought for moment. “If you go very, very quickly and just to a few places that you absolutely must see, then… No, you would be martyred.”

My face fell.

“I mean, I don’t know, you look like maybe Pashtun,” he offered. “If you are very, very fast, then maybe possible.” He tore off a scrap of newspaper and began scribbling a note. “My name is Chief Inspector Kamal. Here is my phone number. In case you decide you absolutely must go to the bazaar, please call me if you find problems. I will send you officers.”

I softly thanked him as he folded the note and slid it across the coffee table.

********

The electricity never came back on that night, and for several hours I lied over the bed covers with my shoes still on, staring up into the darkness. Eventually, I slipped into vivid dreams, of the Smugglers’ Bazaar and the Chinese tourist who was killed. I dreamed that she was twenty-four, that she had a blog and an awesome Pashtun disguise, and that she wasn’t afraid of anything until her assailant pulled out the gun.

My bag was packed for the bus by sunrise. I was no longer humoring the idea of sticking the fork in the proverbial toaster.

But then I rediscovered Kamal’s folded note in my pocket and was overcome with a surge of pig-headed bravado.

I hesitantly reached for my pakol cap.

My heart thudded as I strode through Kabuli Gate into Qissa Khawani, the ‘Street of Storytellers,’ and the bazaar announced itself with a powerful waft of tea and spices. My pace quickened as I entered the dusty tangle of lanes, passing dazzling treasure troves of brassware, spilling out onto the streets with trays and teapots studded in silver grapevines and arabesque design.

A donkey cart bayed past, creaking under the weight of a turbaned man porting a dozen Afghani carpets. Bejeweled daggers glistened. Bearded men haggled in Pashtun, Farsi, and Urdu. Three women in burkas sifted through dresses they would never get to wear in public.

I could taste Afghanistan. Everything was alien and exhilarating and profoundly photogenic, yet I couldn’t reach for my camera, lest I expose my cover.

My hands trembled with adrenaline. I kept my face down. For the first time in my life, my mortality no longer seemed an abstraction, but instead something very real, something very tangible and impermanent. I could realistically die at any moment—these might be the very last fleeting moments of my life. I waited for the screech of a motorbike or the pop of a gunshot, and then: no more adventures, no more worrying about the future; I would never have to complain about soul-crushing commutes on the LA freeway; I would never plan an outlandish honeymoon; I would never get to use my senility as an excuse for deplorable misbehavior.

As sobering as this idea was, I felt disturbingly indifferent. If I did die, I would suffer a few seconds of horrible chaos—but then there would be nothing. Unless you’re subscribed to some divine faith, where god whisks away your soul for Free Ice Cream Wednesdays in heaven, death is only numb, dark silence. You are fertilizer, reclaimed by the earth. There is no pain.

If I died, the real victims would be my family.

I imagined my mother and father waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night, telling them they needed to fly halfway around the world to identify their child’s body. I imagined friends and neighbors visiting my family to offer condolences, cluttering the kitchen counter with cellophane cheese baskets and crockpots of Hamburger Helper.  I imagined my two brothers driving my parents into Boston. I imagined my mother breaking down in the airport.

As I wandered deeper into the bazaar, towards the Khyber checkpoint, all I felt was suffocating dread—the same dread, I realize, that keeps my parents awake at night whenever I vanish into the third world in the name of adventure.

I was starting to feel more selfish than scared.

I passed a man in a skullcap mumbling over prayer beads, beneath a wall of shrieking birdcages. A Herati boy with one leg offered me a ruby from of a newspaper parcel.

I was barely fifteen minutes into the bazaar—nowhere close to the Khyber checkpoint, the entrance of the Smugglers’ Bazaar proper—when my shame outweighed my courage and I turned around to flag down a rickshaw.

Shobha Chowk janaa. Shan Hotel,” I muttered to the driver. “But please go east, out of Lahori Gate.”

Kya ap Engreezie hai?!” the driver laughed in shock. You are English?!

Naheeng, mayng Afghanistan say hoong,” I explained. No, I’m from Afghanistan.

“Ahhh,” he grinned, “Al-humdulillah,” and the rickshaw lurched forward.

*********

Later that night, I called my mother and told her that I loved her and that I missed her. I also told her that I had finally decided to leave Pakistan; that I’d had enough whimsical, near-death adventures; that the road to China beckoned.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For an equally reckless, gun-toting Pakistan adventure, check out Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale

For practical advice on traveling in volatile regions, check out Steve McDonald’s Guide to Not Dying in Scary Countries

To hear my rally cry for independent adventure travel, check out The Backpacker’s Manifesto

Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero

The afternoon sun slanted across the District Chief of Police’s office as he sat glowering at me in his oversized armchair, gnashing his teeth like some rabid, Pashtun muppet. Sitting in his line of fire, I smiled at nothing in my ridiculous Pakistani disguise, masterfully flaunting the Dumb Tourist Card.

“This is no place for tourists!” he barked. “Don’t you know that Chitral is a dangerous place?”

“Huh??” I showboated, “So. Am I safe???” I cried, clasping my forehead and turning to Zia, my ever-loyal and useless escort, who cowered in the corner, fidgeting with his machine gun.

The Chief sat back. “You’re fine. The police are currently in control of the situation,” he boasted, and lifted up my Permit Application Form.  “You are coming from Kalash Valley?”

“Yes, sir, I saw the festival!“

“And you want permission to stay in Chitral for seven days?”

I nodded innocently.

He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

I hesitated for a moment, before blurting, “I want to see buzkashi.”

The Police Chief’s face reddened, and a long, tense silence ensued. I was half expecting him to throw a paperweight at me, but suddenly his head snapped backwards and he began screaming with laughter.

I shrunk in my chair. “I… I want to see buzkashi,” I asserted again, and he crumpled over, shrieking even louder.

If you’re unfamiliar with the sport of buzkashi, or ‘GoatBall,’ it’s a popular pastime in Central Asia, and vaguely akin to Polo…

Except instead of a ball, they use a headless goat carcass.

Buzkashi is traditionally played with two opposing teams of dirty, bearded men on horseback, and the goal is to grab the headless goat, drag it across the field, and hurl it into the other team’s ‘circle of justice.’ Then, hopefully, you wash your hands.  What makes buzkashi so challenging is that, while you’re dragging the smelly, headless corpse across the field, the opposing team is violently beating you with sticks, horsewhips, and in extreme cases, even knives. The thick-wristed champions of the match are awarded no trophies, but instead leather boots, turbans, cash, and rifles.

For obvious reasons, I needed to witness this.

My problem was that, while buzkashi remains the national sport of Afghanistan, here in Pakistan, it has lost popularity in recent times. Some blame the young generation’s refusal of traditional equestrian culture, while others point to the much broader ‘pussification’ of the modern world.

Today, Pakistan’s last great stronghold of buzkashi lies high in the Hindu Kush mountains, in the valley of Chitral, where a sizeable, goat-dragging refugee population has bled across the border from Afghanistan. It’s a volatile region, and visiting involves a mine-field of red tape—but as soon as the District Police Chief’s screams of laughter subsided, he signed my seven-day permit, gave me an emphatic thumbs-up, abruptly started laughing again, and then waved me off to start my quest.

In the dim light of the backroom, Zeeshan Iqbal slammed down his empty cup. It was only his first glass of ‘China Water,’ but he was already drunk and laughing, wrestling with the English language at triple decibels.

“Steve!” he shouted in his thick, Pashtun accent. “You are good man!” he said. “But there is no buzkashi! No buzkashi here.  But you are veryvery good person!” he cried. Zeeshan was about my age, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Chitrali, with a booming laugh, an unorthodox, plaid pakol hat, and the alcohol tolerance of a four-year-old.

Zeeshan had abducted me as his guest after I stumbled into his (decidedly odd) clothing and refrigerators store. Three hours and one prohibited glass of rice liquor later, we were sitting in the dingy backroom of his friend Khan’s restaurant, picking through a mountain of kebabs with Zia and Khan himself.

I poured him another glass. “What do you mean there’s no buzkashi here?”

“It’s true,” pouted Khan. “We haven’t played buzkashi here in over five years.”

Zeeshan shook his head. “Times are hard. Goats are expensive,” he sighed.

We sat in silence for a long, gloomy moment as this reality sunk in. My heart sank. I would never know the joy of watching a headless goat being dragged across a field by a dozen haggard Afghans on horseback.

“Well then,” I turned to Zia. “The bus to Islamabad leaves in the morning… I guess you’re off the hook now,” I said despondently, and Zia frowned.

Suddenly Zeeshan screamed— “Ooh! Steve! We can go to Makhbul!!

“YES!” cheered Khan. “Makhbul will know what to do!”

“The what…” I uttered.

“Makhbul is the Head of the Border Police!” Zeeshan preached, gazing wistfully into the distance. “Makhbul is the king of polo!”

Makhbul was something of a local Afghani hero, as I later learned; a household legend in Chitral, a celebrity of great influence. If there was any hope for my impossible dream to come true, it apparently lied in the hands of a great and honorable Makhbul.

The next morning, Zeeshan insisted on buying breakfast for Zia and I, before closing his shop early to take us out to the Friday polo game, to meet Makhbul.

Quite unlike what I imagined, Makhbul was just a cantankerous, scruffy-bearded old man, with a cigarette pinched in his permanent scowl. Sitting in the wooden bleachers amongst his devotees and gazing pensively across the dusty polo field to the icy mountain peaks beyond, he looked like some irritable, chain-smoking Jesus.

Makhbul listened and nodded as Zeeshan passionately explained my mission, and when the story finished, Makhbul dramatically raised up his arms.

“We shall arrange buzkashi for you…” he dramatically declared, “If you will buy the goat and pay us two-hundred dollars.”

Everyone turned to me.

“Oh, wow…” I blanched, looking away. “That sounds really great,” I started. “But unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of cash to spare.”

Makhbul shook his head and the crowd muttered. He suddenly raised up his arms again.

“We… shall arrange buzkashi for you,” he stammered, “If you will buy the goat… And arrange dinner for us! With musical performance.”

At this, the crowds’ eyes lit up as they buzzed with excitement.

“Okay. And how much would that all cost me?”

Makhbul thought for a moment. “Maybe two-hundred dollars.”

“Hmmm…” I muttered.

The villagers stared in silent suspense. Makhbul looked eager too. I could tell they all really wanted to play buzkashi, regardless of whether a dinner party was involved.

I decided to bluff.

“Thanks so much, but I’m sorry. I think I’m going to head back to Islamabad in the morning. Thanks anyways though.”

I rose to leave, but Makhbul lifted up his arms in prophetic announcement once more. “We shall arrange buzkashi for you,” he cheered, “If you will only buy goat!”

A grin crept across my face. “Okay,” I nodded, and warily shook his hand.

The terms of the bargain were agreed as such: Makhbul would summon the best buzkashi players from all the surrounding villages, as well as arranging the venue and providing the horses.

As for my end of the deal, I needed to buy a ‘medium-sized’ goat (somehow) and bring it to the field by Wednesday—preferably headless, but no fuss, it’s an easy fix.

The entire town was invited. Everyone was thrilled. Assuming I could produce a goat, the villagers of Chitral would get to play buzkashi again for the first time in over five years. As if that wasn’t enough pressure on my shoulders, I was terrified to learn that there were several hundred Afghans who thought I was some sort of philanthropist hero. Watching their sad, refugee eyes light up with joy over the possibility of frolicking with a headless goat carcass while beating each other with sticks again was simply heartwarming. I resolved that I couldn’t let them down.

I just needed a goat.

Days passed; an awesome blur of beards, kebabs, and concrete huts. Each early morning, I drank tea as strong as rocket fuel, watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Hindu Kush. In the afternoons, I usually strolled the dusty bazaar with Zia, until eventually Zeeshan would close his clothing and refrigerator shop early, and we’d all drive around the valley, meeting Zeeshan’s friends and pigging out on variants of grilled mutton.

One afternoon, while Zia and I sat on the porch, chatting nonsense and smoking apple sheesha, he invited me to his home, and I met his jovial, younger brother, Shaquille. I came to know Zeeshan’s family as well, and it was his older brother, Farooq, who eventually took me to find my goat.

The goat we picked was about ‘medium-sized’ (by our approximations), with wispy, white hair and dumb, empty eyes. His name was Trevor Ahmed III, and he liked walking in circles and chewing on nothing. May he rest in peace.

I wish I could end my story here, with me victoriously walking back into town, carrying my goat as different voices shout my name—the dabbah-wallah who sells me breakfast, the old Pashtun electrician who fixed my laptop for free, the friendly clerk at Gohar’s Mobile Shop, who used to be a trekking guide. If I ended on this cheery, upbeat note, this would be one of the coolest (or most ridiculous) travel stories I’d likely ever tell.

But another title for this story could have been, ‘The Great GoatBall Tragedy.’ I chose the more optimistic title, but the outcome is just as bleak…

Wednesday morning was warm and sunny—a beautiful day for buzkashi. Zia and I sat on the porch, waiting for the afternoon game, when Zeeshan stumbled up the stairs in his conspicuous plaid pakol cap. For the first time, he wasn’t smiling. He looked pale and shaken.

Kya wa?” asked Zia.

“A boy. Next to the field,” Zeeshan stuttered. “He’s dead.”

“What? What happened?” I blurted. “Did you know him?”

Zeeshan nodded. “His name was Munna. He was my age, same class. He was very sick…” he muttered. He shifted his weight. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“He lived with his family next to the horse fields. Where we play buzkashi. They’re laying out his body today, and I think, maybe, well—“

“They probably don’t want us playing buzkashi outside their son’s wake?”

Zeeshan frowned. “I’m very sorry, Steve. Bad luck. I’ll talk to Makhbul. We can play the day after tomorrow.”

“No,” I shook my head. “My permit only allows for seven days. Tomorrow I need to leave for Islamabad.”

Zeeshan’s gaze fell.

“Well… I need to get back to the field,” he finally said. “Come to my shop after lunch.” And with that, he trotted off, vanishing down the street.

For a long time, Zia and I said nothing. We just sat in our chairs, lost in thought, quietly staring out at the mountains.

That afternoon, we found Zeeshan quietly reorganizing his shop. “I only stayed at Munna’s for a little while,” he said gloomily. “It made me very sad.”

“I’m sorry,” I offered.

“That’s life,” he shrugged

The door swung open as two of his friends arrived, and a few minutes later, the shop closed and we piled into their car. With no particular destination, we just drove, up into the mountains, higher and higher, until Chitral was only a tiny glimmer of grey on the valley floor.  Eventually, a fallen tree declared the end of the road, and after glaring at it challengingly for a few minutes, we abandoned the car and continued on foot.

We collapsed on the ground upon reaching the grassy plateau, and after Zeeshan produced a diabolical bottle of China Water from his jacket, a bonfire materialized. Liquor flowed, and the sun sank in the sky, painting the snowy amphitheater of peaks in a fiery hue of orange.

“I’m going to miss Chitral,” I said, looking up at Zia, who grinned in the firelight.

Zeeshan took a long and reckless swig of rice liquor. “Next time you are come to Chitral, you will be stay with me and my family for one whole month!” he informed me, wiping his chin with a sleeve. “You will come, and so good going to Chitral Gol at nighttime and National Park and kya ker rahe ho! Shooting markhor mountain goats and GOOD FUN, and we—“

“What?” I blurted, and the Pakistanis fell over giggling.

“My no good English is… eeeeeeee,” Zeeshan snorted, peeling the label off the China Water and flicking it into the fire. “You are good man, Steve,” he decided, and took off his plaid pakol cap. He nodded and held it out for me to take.

“What,” I said.

“Gift,” he insisted, shaking his cap.

I rolled my eyes. “Stop it. Finish your booze.”

Zeeshan laughed, and then tossed the cap onto my head, where it awkwardly drooped over my face. “Very beautiful,” he bellowed. “Now you look like real Chitrali!” and the Pakistanis crumpled over in another giggling fit.

The next morning, Farooq intercepted me on my way the bus stand. Apparently, I had forgotten about Trevor Ahmed III, whom was still tethered to a pole outside the Iqbal residence.

Farooq handed me back my money. “We’re sorry there was no buzkashi. But don’t worry… I will find someplace for the goat,” he ominously promised.

After endlessly thanking him, he added, “If you still want to see buzkashi, we will call our friends in Gilgit who run the polo games. When you get there, they will arrange buzkashi for you free of charge,” he smiled. “I’m sorry we wasted your time.”

“I forgive you,” I smirked and we hugged goodbye, before I turned to catch up with Zia.

Truthfully, I was disappointed that I didn’t see buzkashi, but my week spent in Chitral was anything but a waste of time. On the contrary, it was indispensable.

When I look back at two incredible months in Pakistan, the one sight that I reminisce most fondly about isn’t a mountainscape, or ruin, or monumental palace. It’s a tiny, wooden shop just off of Naya Bazaar, brimming with colorful t-shirts and plastic-wrapped refrigerators, presided over by a goofy Chitrali in a plaid pakol cap.

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To read my first misadventure with Zia (a run-in with the Taliban), check out “Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale

For a similarly farfetched quest into the Long-Necked tribal villages of Burma, check out “The Human Zoo

To see the Kalash Valley Festival that preceded my trip to Chitral, check out the Photo Travelogue, “The Joshi Festival of the Black Kalash Tribe

Guest Blogger Michael Spencer Bown: The Top 80 Highlights of the World

An unexpected benefit of visiting ‘dangerous’ places like Pakistan is that it affords you the opportunity to meet some fascinating people. They’re never tourists; they’re travelers, adventurers, lunatics, or some hazardous cocktail of the three.

Perhaps the most interesting individual I’ve met is Mike Spencer Bown, whom I had the pleasure of traveling with for two weeks along the Karakoram Highway. At 42 years old, Mike’s not your ordinary backpacker; he has no camera, scarcely any luggage, and over the course of his twenty-one year trip, he’s been arrested more times than he can count. But considering that he has extensively traveled nearly every country in the world by now, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan (he’s scheduled to have finished every country by November, 2012), this is almost a prerequisite.

During our time together, I asked Mike if he’d be willing to look back at his twenty-one years of travel and cobble together a list of highlights.

Mike refused at first, arguing that such lists were pedestrian, that there’s no one place that’s better than another and that a true traveler should go everywhere.

“Everyone should even go to Azerbaijan?” I queried.

“Especially Azerbaijan.”

It was a hot and lazy afternoon in Kashgar, as we sat on the roof of our guesthouse, staring out across the Old Town, when I finally coerced Mike into penning down his top eighty experiences, which I’ve shared below.

It should be reiterated that lists of this nature are always subjective and based on the personal opinions and experiences of the author. And this particular author is the type of hardened vagabond who warmly reminisces about evading genocidal Hutu rebels in the Congo, instead of, say, stargazing under the Eiffel Tower or sunbathing in Phuket.

But, considering that Mike will soon break the record for being the first person to have *extensively* traveled every single country in the world, this is (oddly enough) the most complete and accurate list of its kind ever written by one person. So you can forget 1,000 Things To See Before You Die. I doubt Patricia Schultz has every avoided capture by pirates in Somalia.

I’ll leave you to Mike now…

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80. Outback bushwalking in the Red Center, Australia
79.Standing in the graveyard of the Blue whales, South Georgia Island, Antarctica
78. Meeting witch doctors on the Dogon Escarpment, Mali
77.Havana by classic car, Cuba
76.Paddleboat past sleeping tigers in the Sunderbans Mangrove Forest, Bangladesh
75. Kaleidoscopic reef diving in the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia
74. Learning to drive a reindeer sleigh while drunk with the Yakuti tribe, Yakutsk, Russia
73. Penetrating the jungles of the Pantanal Wetlands by horseback, Brazil
72. Exploring the ruined palaces of Orcha, India
71. Getting lost on the three inter-locking subway systems of Tokyo, Japan
70. Salt hotels and jeep driving, San Pedro de Atacama, Andes
69. Gliding across Lake Titicaca on a boat made of reeds, Bolivia
68. Staring down the stone heads, Easter Islands
67. Roaring engines and a blur of green, riding the highlands of Cameroon by motorbike
66. Sailing past fur seals and marine iguanas in the Galapagos, Equator
65. Snorkeling with black-tailed barracuda in the Togian Islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia
64. Trying not to look down at the precarious Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan
63. Tackling the West Coast Trail, Vancouver Island, Canada
62. Temple climbing in the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
61. Admiring Lake Baikal from horseback on Olakhon Island, Russia
60. Deep south, coast-to-coast, All-American Road Trip

59. Trekking through rainforests villages to the lost city of the Taironas, Colombia
58. Castles of the Slave Coast, Ghana
57. Hosteling Europe
56. Fishing from row boat under the soaring cliffs of Geiranger Fjord, Norway
55. Evading police by motorboat on the Niger River Delta, Niger
54. Mountains as jagged as broken glass, Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
53. Horses, yurt living, and Scythian ruins, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
52. Climbing red sand dunes before sliding back down, Namibia
51. Perusing the rubble of the lost Bamiyan Buddhas, Afghanistan
50. The tropical wild west of Palawan by four-wheel drive, Philippines
49. Dodging angry forest elephants, Luango Park, Gabon
48. Dream fish on the barbeque, Norfolk Island
47. Hitchhiking around South Africa
46. Troll Castles, Iceland
45. “Captaining” a rusty sand ship in the vanishing Aral Sea, Uzbekistan
44. Rafting the mighty Colorado River through the bowels of the Grand Canyon, USA
43. Hitchhiking past bandits, Central African Republic
42. Viewing the last of the Asiatic lions in Sasan Gir, India
41. Prayer flags and Himalayan peaks on the Annapurna Trek, Nepal
40. Sailing up the Nile River, Egypt to Ethiopia

39. A taste of the old Caribbean, island hopping in the Grenadines
38. Sprinting down black, volcanic cones in Antigua, Guatemala
37. Lemur spotting, Madagascar
36. Chilling under the Baobab trees, Lake Milawi, Milawi
35. White water rafting in the wake of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
34. Free Party Scene, U.K.
33. Snorkeling with one-million golden jellyfishes, Palau
32. Dim-sum carts and steaming baskets, Hong Kong
31. Floating down the Amazon, Brazil
30. Avoiding capture in the land of pirates, Puntland State of Somalia
29. Tucking into the relatively unknown and fantastically underrated Georgian cuisine, Republic of Georgia
28. Dropping in on the villages of the Yezedi Satan Worshippers, Iraq
27. Surveying for jewelry after the rains, ruined city of Mir, Turkmenistan
26. Island hopping past steaming volcanoes and Komodo dragons in Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
25. Delving deep into the Patosi Mines, Bolivia
24. Underground party scene, Iran
23. Lazing along the Mekong river by slow boat, Laos
22. Rock climbing the Hand of Fatima and the monumental mountains of Mali
21. Exploring the spectacular, ancient Khmer ruins in the jungles of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
20. Rubbing elbows with Sikh pilgrims in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, India

19. Checking out the “Red Neck” Inuit bar scene, Nook, Greenland
18. Cruising through spectacular fjord panoramas on Milford Sound, New Zealand
17. Standing amidst penguin colonies under towering, blue ice cliffs, Antarctica
16. Searching for the perfect mango, Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka
15. Spelunking Southeast Asia’s longest cave system at Deer Cave, Borneo
14. Wandering an ancient Roman city frozen in time by the desert sands, Palmyra, Syria
13. Angel Falls by dugout canoe, Venezuela
12. Lounging on the most beautiful stretch of sand in the world, Argent Beach, Seychelles
11. Glimpsing tigers on the prowl, Ranthambore National Park, India
10. Living in a leaf hut with an African Pygmy tribe, Democratic Republic of Congo
09. Poling away from cantankerous hippos in a mocoro boat, Okavango Delta, Botswana
08. Pretending you’re Indiana Jones in the incredible, cliff-carved ruins of Petra, Jordan
07. Testing your liver on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Russia
06. People watching over a sheesha pipe in an ahwa, Damascus, Syria
05. Coming face to face with Silverback Gorillas in Virunga Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
04. Red wine and wheels of cheese, anywhere in the Alps
03. Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
02. Standing in awe of the Great Herd Migration, Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania
01. Looking down upon the world from Mt. Everest Base Camp, Nepal or Tibet

While I’m not quite as well-traveled as Mike, I’d like to add six more for posterity. All of the following adventures are recommendable and extra-super fun. Click and enjoy!

81. Getting detained by CIA in Pakistan after trying to sneak into a restricted militarized zone, dressed in a Pashtun disguise.

82. Attempting to hitchhike across the Gobi Desert whilst shit-faced drunk/Getting trapped for three days in the smelly cabin of a truck.

83. Watching in horror as men and women with dwarfism sing songs in mushroom houses at China’s Midget Theme Park/Realizing it’s a small world, after all.

84. Exposing your genitals to a room full of Chinese children because you have to/Allowing a Traditional Chinese Medicine woman to treat your mystery-herpes with expired woodland critters and foliage/Not being surprised when it backfires spectacularly.

85. Sneaking into the CIA’s former ‘Secret City’ in Laos/Getting detained by Laos military.

86. Sipping red wine amidst a Taliban gun fight at a spirit-worshipping tribal festival on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more gimmicky list-making, check out the Top Ten Free Vacations

Or the Top Five Countries You Thought Were Dangerous, But Really Aren’t

The 1,000 Year Old Egg (and the Three Penis Wine)

Grocery shopping with a Chinese local is a bit like doing mushrooms for the first time. You gingerly step through the automatic doors, and tumble head first down the rabbit hole, into an alien world of saccharine colors and challenging smells; a horrifying culinary wonderland.

Up until that point, I never knew just how many of my favorite animals were edible.

I followed my Chinese friend, Tao, and my expat friend, Pip, past a bloody deli cart piled high with animal guts; something out of a horror movie.

"Cold duck neck tastes great with beer," Pip instructed me.

"Chemically preserved chicken feet are great for camping," explained Tao.

Pip couldn’t recommend the vacuum sealed bag of horse intestines, but insisted they make a great gift.

Tao proudly lifted up an item and proclaimed, “Here it is. The most disgusting food in Asia.”

He was holding an egg—a black egg, to be specific. A one-thousand-year-old egg.

I had heard of these notorious eggs before (also called century, or millennium eggs). They weren’t as old as their forbidding name suggests, but still, they’re old, and this particular one had the sulfurous, rotting stench to prove it. The egg undergoes an aging process in which it is coated in an alkaline, lime-based clay (which allegedly contains horse urine), and is then buried in soil for about three months.

The result is a black egg, with a greenish yolk and an amber egg white, flecked with delicate mold growths that resemble snowflakes.

“You should eat it,” said Tao, and I nodded in agreement, tossing a couple in my basket.

Tao suggested that, in case I found the taste as offensive as the smell (as most foreigners do), I should buy a drink to wash it down.

And of course, he had just the suggestion.

“This is Chinese Three Penis Wine,” he said, taking a brown, dusty bottle off the shelf. “It’s very popular in traditional areas.”

I frowned. “I’m assuming that ‘Three Penis’ is the name of the vineyard?”

“Oh, no,” Tao smiled. “It’s made with three penises.” He placed the bottle in my basket, before adding, “Dog penis, Yak penis, and Goat penis.”

Lovely…

I was fairly excited about my taste test until I actually cut the egg open, and the perfume of septic tank filled the kitchen.

I’ll let the videos speak the rest…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oD2OndDnEY&feature=plcp]

Attempt #2:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KIDIXAK-7w&feature=plcp]

A second opinion from the Dutch:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tu68z8vpLE&feature=plcp]

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more unfortunate culinary disasters, check out my five most terrifying meals of Burma in, “Have You Eaten?: An Angry Foodies Portrait of Burma

For a true food adventure, check out my thirty hour quest by Indian train for an authentic bowl of Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, before I paid the bill, returned to the train station, and rode all the way back: “A Hyderabad Idea: Part One

Or, if you’re too goddamn lazy to read, check out the “Photo Travelogues" for more videos and photos.